Money might be better, but grass isn't always greener
Home is where the heart is as Heaslip makes it a winter of content for IRFU
Published 24/01/2014 | 02:30
WHATEVER happened to the floodgates, the ones that Jonathan Sexton supposedly opened when rejecting the IRFU's offer and heading to Racing Metro?
Well, after months of speculation, tours of French training facilities, offers, counter-offers and hard negotiations, the net result is that the only Ireland frontliner who will be making his exit at the end of this season will be Brian O'Driscoll when he waves goodbye from the game.
With Jamie Heaslip committing to Leinster yesterday, those floodgates remained firmly shut – for the moment at least. There are a few more deals to nail down, with Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock among those yet to decide on their futures, but the big seven have all nailed their colours to the Irish mast and remained with their provinces.
Next season takes in a World Cup and should not be ignored as a factor, as one by one the big guns signed on for two or three years, turning down offers from abroad.
Sexton, thus, will remain Ireland's only frontline exile in 2014/15 and the agents, Union officials and fans can finally breathe easily after months of rumour, conjecture and Chinese whispers that have turned the season into an elongated transfer saga.
The importance of the IRFU's achievement in securing their top talent for another couple of seasons can be gauged from the fact that the WRU and Cardiff Blues yesterday admitted defeat on Leigh Halfpenny, who will move to Toulon next summer.
Despite running a budget deficit for the season, and the various clouds hanging over the future of European rugby, the IRFU have stuck to their task and delivered each of the magnificent seven to the provinces for the next few years.
it's not quite so rosy across the Irish Sea. Just this week, Warren Gatland was forced to admit that he'd prefer to see his Welsh players go to France than England because of the more favourable player release rules in the top 14 – mind you, they are the same rules that are unable to prevent Sexton from playing for Racing against Toulouse tomorrow. However, when Northampton are being fined for allowing George North play for Wales, then you know you're in trouble.
In contrast, Joe Schmidt now has just one of his major stars operating outside of the controlled environment of the IRFU structures. His fellow New Zealander Gatland has to worry about what's happening in Perpignan, Paris, Northampton, Gloucester and now Toulon, where his collection of front-line stars reside.
At various points over the last month it looked like full-back Halfpenny would be joined by Sean O'Brien and Heaslip, with the mega-rich European champions aggressively pursuing the Leinster and Ireland back-rows.
Both visited the club and both considered the offer on the table, which was significantly higher than what the IRFU were offering.
When O'Brien turned them down, Toulon increased their bid for Heaslip.
However, even if his head was turned, the preference was to stay at home and when it came down to making a hard decision, the Naas native followed the tullow Tank's lead by committing to his home province.
Many rejoiced when O'Brien put pen to paper, but in terms of minutes on the pitch and contributions year on year, Heaslip's signature is also of massive value to Leinster and Ireland.
Seemingly indestructible, he has made 176 appearances for his province over nine seasons, has represented Ireland 60 times and won five caps for the Lions. Despite operating in a position that demands abrasiveness and consistently topping the tackle counts, he is rarely injured and is universally respected by his colleagues.
Although Leo Cullen retains the captaincy, Heaslip has been leading Leinster all season and is expected to get the job officially when the second-row becomes forwards coach.
He had a spell as Ireland skipper last season and, as vice-captain, is next in line for the gig when Paul O'Connell finishes up.
He joins Donnacha Ryan and Ian Madigan in signing a three-year deal. It will bring him beyond his 33rd birthday, but his injury profile suggests that he possesses longevity, and a move to France could well still be an option in 2017.
How receiving snub after snub from Irish internationals will affect the French clubs' approach to the talent here remains to be seen.
Toulon were taken aback by O'Brien's decision to turn them down, having felt they had agreed a deal for the Carlow man, while a host of Top 14 clubs have had their fingers burned courting the seven Irish players this winter.
However, given the recently signed TV deal that will add to the French clubs' spending power, they are unlikely to be perturbed by rejection and will be ready to pursue the next batch of expiring contracts in 2015, which will include Rob Kearney and Peter O'Mahony.
While they can be satisfied at having secured the future of all of their frontline players, there are still lessons the IRFU can learn ahead of next season's talks. After all, their captain and vice-captain's futures remained unresolved perilously close to the Six Nations and, while talks did start as early as June, it took quite some time to reach agreement on valuation.
Still, given the way the market has gone, the spending power of the French clubs and the exodus from almost every other major rugby nation to the Top 14, it is a coup to retain the talent in Ireland.
A combination of provincial success, the protection provided by the player management programme, the looming World Cup, the tax laws and the unique charm of playing for your home province have all been factors in the players' decisions.
And then there is Sexton himself, the man who left the squad on Wednesday to hook up once more with his international band of mystery and misery in Paris. Any of the in-demand players who tuned in to their international colleague's games this season will have seen a disconsolate figure in an at-times shambolic team and they'll have realised a valuable lesson.
The money might be better, but the grass isn't always greener.